Back to previous page

America as an Interspiritual Superpower: A Vision to be Realized
by Wayne Teasdale



It is not an exaggeration to say that in the long, troubled history of this fragile but exquisite planet there has not been a more inventive society than America. It is surely true that there are many societies with equal creativity, i.e., the ancient Greeks, the Arabs during the golden age of Islam, classical China, India, Japan, Germany, France, Spain, and Britain. Then there are the unique approaches to the natural world and culture found in numerous indigenous societies, notably the Aborigines, Native Americans, and the countless tribes of Africa. Creativity is a universal human attribute, and yet, in the United States this precious trait has received a scope of activity that is virtually unlimited. In this sense, America can be regarded rightly as a multifaceted inventive genius, a practical intelligence that knows no bounds.

American preeminence can be seen in poliitcs, economics, military power, law, governance, in literature and entertainment, social consciousness and altruism, in its eloquent espousal of human rights, and in its deep-seated compassion when this people is in touch with its soul, its original source of inspiration, and the depth of its spiritual capacities. The other contributors to this volume have developed some of these other aspects of the American contribution to the world. It must also be mentioned how America has failed. The United States has not done much to close the gap between the haves and have-nots. Its foreign policy in recent years has lacked the maturity and selflessness one would expect of the only superpower. It continues to support an essentially heartless capitalism, the moral bankruptcy of which is clearly evident in the corporate scandals, the decay of our cities with respect to the urban poor, and the frightful exploitation of cheap labor with undocumented aliens in the states, Mexico, and elsewhere. There is an inhuman, unethical approach to vulnerable populations of employees routinely practiced by many corporations without much integrity in their leadership. There is also the terrible failure of American culture in generating and disseminating our artificial, economically motivated culture through globalization, the similarly heartless process of extending American influence abroad. There is the huge problem of homelessness around the globe, with an estimated one billion persons living in the streets or in utter destitution, more than half a million -a conservative estimate - in the U.S. alone. But these failures and successes are not what I will focus on in this essay. I wish to share a dream of America as an interspiritual superpower, a great society in which the acceptance of diversity and pluralism is innate to the psyche of this land, where it reaches a depth of integration that can be of benefit to the whole of humanity in this very dangerous period of history into which we have been thrust by tragic circumstances, and serious challenges requiring perspective and wisdom.

In what follows I want to explore another avenue of greatness never mentioned in our society, the very real possibility and probability that America could emerge in time as a spiritual, or what I call an interspiritual superpower. Interspirituality is a term I have coined to name and identify the phenomenon of our age of openness to other traditions of faith, wisdom, and spiritual life. Interspirituality is also, more concretely, the willingness to explore these other traditions, and to imbibe spiritual practices in these other systems of spirituality. I have elaborated the meaning of this approach/phenomenon in both The Mystic Heart, and A Monk in the World. First it is necessary to consider some background.

A Society at the Crossroads


American culture in this period is spiritually illiterate, morally confused, or ambiguous, psychologically dysfunctional, addicted to violence, consumerism, and entertainment. It is true that most people in the United States are religious, or identify themselves as so, and all these people believe in God, some 97%, but only a small percentage of these actually understand that life is a spiritual process, a spiritual journey with a definite destination and purpose in mind.

Similarly, American culture is morally confused and steeped in ambiguity. It is confused about abortion, the death penalty, war, and the tolerance of all kinds and levels of violent behavior. In this, Hollywood is greatly to blame. It is responsible for this culture of violence to which we are subject because we live here. It feeds us a steady diet of violent films, videos, and TV series, and so, maintains this cultural malaise of addiction to all sorts of violence. We are accepting of this situation because of the spiritual illiteracy that exists at the basis of our world. It makes us ambiguous about these matters to which we are constantly exposed.

Spiritual illiteracy and moral confusion result in psychological dysfunction, affecting every aspect of our lives: our relationships in the family, friendships, our work environment, and how we relate to associates, our aspirations, ambitions, dreams, and fears, even our health. This psychological dysfunction has to do with ignorance, incapacity in our relationships, a lack of sufficient generosity, the desire for entertainment and fixation on consumerism. It moves people to accept so much less than they can achieve in their spiritual lives by a deadening attachment to what is radically passing away. American culture is radically attached to the impermanent, and in a very real sense, September 11th was a lesson in this attachment, and its ultimate futility.

It is not all negative, however, because there is in our society a prevailing, deeply-rooted religious and spiritual freedom. It is profoundly guarded as a precious attainment of the American psyche. America has attracted all races, cultures, religions, and spiritualities, and we are the most ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse society in the world; this is clearly the case in our major cities of Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

America has welcomed all the religions of the world. It is no longer dominated by Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, since now Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jains, and Sikhs exist here in great numbers. There are more Muslims - some five million of them in the U.S. - than the number of Episcopalians. Every faith and form of spirituality is here, and since the sixties, truly gifted spiritual teachers, or masters are here, operating centers, and with large numbers of devotees following them. A number of the indigenous traditions are also represented, including native American faiths and Latin American shamans, with their natural mysticism. From Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the TM master, Swami Satchidananda, founder of the Integral Yoga Institutes, Zen roshis, Tibetan rinpoches, Kabbalistic and Hasidic teachers, Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Trappist spiritual masters, Pir Valiat Kahn, and his successor and son, Pir Zia, the Sufi inspiring lights, Lama Palden Drolma, a woman who is a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, all of these figure and countless others, are part of a growing movement to genuine and mature spirituality. All these streams of mystical wisdom are available here, and are mingling in the great American spiritual culture. Their existence in America are helping to raise the level of awareness of so many, and are passing on their insights, methods of prayer/contemplation and meditation, with its accompanying psychology, and insights into cultivating community as a foundation for transformation of more and more people.

When the interfaith movement is added to these streams of mystical wisdom, there is a possibility for a huge breakthrough in American culture, setting the stage for something never seen before in our hemisphere, the emergence of a spiritual superpower, reminiscent of the golden age of India’s mystical, contemplative civilization. This extraordinary emergent reality is the result of a growing cultural, religious, intellectual, artistic, and spiritual ferment stimulated by the incredible intensification of diversity in one area of the world, and manifesting itself on such a high level of articulation and maturity.

This ferment is also an interlocking of capacities that as they interact create other capacities that generate conditions for new cultural forms. A broad, interspiritual American culture is being born, and is becoming increasingly conscious, aware of a horizon of meaning and spiritual life that can overpower the predominant culture of entertainment, consumerism, and an essentially heartless capitalism. Under the surface of this society, with the intense meditative discipline being observed by several millions of spiritual seekers, a torrent of consciousness is rising in American humanity and other nations as well, that will have its effect in time.



The Interfaith Movement, Community, and the Birth of Interspirituality


The concentration of such an intensification of spiritual genius in all its cultural expressions from all the great world religions, spiritualities, and systems of mystical wisdom, has been made possible by the blossoming of the interreligious, or interfaith movement with its opportunities for substantial encounter, mutual exchange, and mystical irradiation, cross-fertilization of insight, perception, and dialectical possibilities for newer understandings of what is real, true, with attendant strategies for approaching the Divine, the Absolute.

This interfaith movement in the modern age began in September 1893 in Chicago during the World’s Parliament of the Religions, which brought the venerable faith traditions together for the first time in historical memory for seventeen days as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition, the World’s Fair. From this event, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Shinto were introduced into American culture, and the West more generally, but it was not until further historical occurrences that something gelled on a deeper level of development, sparking the possibility of an interspiritual awakening. These occurrences were the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, August 28-September 5, 1993. Both of these events/processes have contributed to where we are today. Vatican II greatly advanced interreligious dialogue/encounter by opening the Catholic Church to dialogue with and respect for the other traditions. The Catholic Church has really been a leader in interfaith conversation and collaboration. The Church’s action, especially in the recognition of truth and moral values in the other religions announced in the counciliar document, Nostra Aetate, set the stage for vigorous and persistent activity of an interreligous nature. Catholics have been in the forefront of this work since its inception with the teaching of the council, and monastics have contributed enormously to the contemplative dimension of interfaith exchange.

The second most important event has been the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions, the centennial celebration of the historically significant Chicago happening. This great event, like Vatican II, was a world historical process that allowed the insight of the moment to reach a culmination in community as the new paradigm, or model in how the religions, in their members, relate to one another. I foresaw and then witnessed this reality of community come into being during the 1993 Parliament. It was a miracle of human interaction, of cross-religious experience, almost a second Pentecost.

The birth of community, its cultivation in the context of live-in opportunities in the interfaith matrix, especially in the intermonastic exchange, the increase in dialogical activities, the growth of understanding, have contributed to the phenomenon of interspirituality. Let me characterize the reality of the interspiritual notion/experience, an ever-expanding radius of light from all the spiritual paths in each of the traditions.

Inspirituality arises where the mystical life is fruitfully manifesting itself in a person’s experience, their consciousness, and their actions. All three are in contact with the Divine, the Absolute, God, Spirit, infinite consciousness, and are inspired. The mystical life, the spiritual journey, the evolution of the person brings that one to inner freedom, as a gift of knowing the Divine, being one with it, and the possibility, indeed longing to explore and know the depth of mystical wisdom in all other traditions, particularly in ways relevant for, or related to, what the mystic, the person is intensely knowing in a contemplative manner. Interspiritual wisdom dawns when a person has the freedom, generosity, and the capacity to explore, delve into, inwardly come to know in a mystical sense, the other traditions.

America needs to awaken to this vision of knowing, because her vocation in this age so fraught with danger, darkness, and uncertainty, is to shed the light of interspiritual wisdom in a world flirting with catastrophe. American culture, as a basic presupposition of its truth, life, and dynamic of civilization, is totally committed to diversity of views, faiths, spiritualities, and so, quite organically, naturally, intrinsically required of it by its nature, is, and has to be, interspiritual, that is, open to and nourished by the spiritual treasures of all the world’s venerable faiths.

America can be this noble kind of superpower, this light to the nations, and the worlds beyond. She can cultivate this intermystical opennness that is what interspirituality is in its ultimate sense, a dynamic, creative perception of the wisdom in all traditions, and ways of knowing, including science, creativity, music, poetry, art, and all human experience, uniting it in herself, by integrating it, knowing it in the integration, and applying it to her culture, life, and society in all its modes of presence and activity. America can be all this because she has the capacity, nurtured by centuries, to accept not only the diversity of peoples and cultures here on these shores, but the equality of these views, approaches to ultimate reality, a basic generosity, a spaciousness of being that allows her to welcome and embrace the great plurality, the bewildering and endlessly fascinating differences between and among persons. I have no doubt that this is the path of greatness for America now and in the future. In this way she will become inevitably an interspiritual superpower, like India in her day for so many millennia.

American spirituality, as becoming more and more interspiritual and intermystical, is a universal spirituality that is eminently practical in nine ways, and through these ways, becomes immensely transformative of the individual, the community, and the world. Interspirituality finds these nine elements in the mature expressions of spirituality in every tradition, that is, in their saints, or mystics. These include 1) an actualized moral capacity, 2) a sense of solidarity, and interdependence with all beings, 3) deep nonviolence, 4) humility of heart, 5) a spiritual practice, 6) mature self-knowledge, 7) simplicity of life, 8) love in action, or compassionate service, and 9) prophetic voice, or witness, and action.

The first way, or element is moral consciousness, having an actualized moral life, that one is naturally moral. It has become second nature to the person. That’s the foundation of the spiritual life, the path, the evolution of one’s development. Secondly, the enlightened man or women knows of their interdependence, and so, a joyful solidarity with all living beings, in all worlds. Because of this, thirdly, there is an innate commitment to non-harming of all beings with whom we come in contact, since we are all interconnected, and everything we do affects everyone and everything else. Fourthly, it is humility of heart that knows, sees, acts aright in each situation. Humility of heart is honesty about yourself, who you are, and the integrity you have. Humility is a non-manipulative relationship towards everyone, everything, and reality itself. One doesn’t impose on, or manipulate others, but respects their inherent right to be, and be respected. The fifth way, or element of spirituality, and interspirituality, is spiritual practice, the utter necessity for it. It is primarily through a spiritual practice, the central commitment to a method of prayer that the person pursues the spiritual life, in real dedication of praxis, whether in meditation, verbal prayer, singing, chanting, dancing, or giving adoration to the Divine. These and many other forms of spiritual practice, become the ground of real inner and outer growth, especially when there is genuine transformation, which will be discussed, and they are the basis of great breakthroughs in the spiritual life.

The sixth is related to the fifth, in that self-knowledge often results from, and is the fruit of prayer, meditation, or whatever form spiritual practice takes in the committed activity of the person. This self-knowledge is a precious gift from prayer, part of its fruit in knowledge of ourselves, our nature, and deeper motivations, motivations often hidden from view in the unconscious life of the person.

When we reach the seventh element, or way of a universal spirituality, an intermystical spiritual path, we are in the clear understanding of the need for simplicity of life, which requires a more simple lifestyle. The aspect of spiritual life, of a viable American spirituality, connects us with nature, and all beings. It makes it possible for us to simplify our needs so the planet, the natural world, is not harmed by our presence, but greatly enhanced. It opens us to all others, especially the poor, because there are no material concerns that keep us apart. Being simple we are open to the vulnerable, the poor, the maginalized of the world. It then makes us docile, and receptive to the Divine.

Then comes the eighth element, or way of love in action, selfless service, or compassionate action. This capacity for love, kindness, compassion, even sensitivity is related to all the other elements, and in many ways is the fruit of them in relation to all others. Spirituality is not genuine if it isn’t engaged with the world, that is, with others. This attitude, activity and being concretizes our spirituality; it makes it authentic, or real. It is this capacity that constitutes us mot like God.

Closely related to the eighth in its active orientation, is the ninth , and final element of American spirituality, as a viable interspirituality, and that is prophetic voice, witness, and action where warranted. Part of being an engaged spirituality it is concerned with justice, with social and environmental responsibility, with the struggle for peace, and the promotion of justice, in the search for common ground and harmony. The enlightened individual will stick his or her neck out for the sake of justice, for others, that is, will take risks in order to help the vulnerable, marginalized, and ignored of society. A spirituality not so engaged is poor indeed. American spirituality is always so engaged, when it arrives at maturity and greatness.

This spirituality, as a whole, is marked by this attitude and practice of engagement with others, with the world. Furthermore, it is holistic; it integrates the body, soul, and mind, or spirit, and it unites the conscious with the unconscious, and them to the super-consciousness. Finally, this spirituality is integral because it seeks to relate faith, mysticism, contemplation, science, creativity, that is, unite all avenues of knowing.

The effect of this spirituality on the person is profound transformation, a substantial change from one state of awareness to another. This awareness takes in all the faculties of the person. One’s understanding, character, will, emotions, imagination, memory, and behavior are all positively affected. Space does not permit me to detail this point by way of elaborating the impact on each faculty.

By way of a conclusion it can be said that when the American people, and their culture awaken to the extent envisioned above, and our nation assumes the mantle of an interspiritual superpower, there will no doubt be constructive effects on our thinking as a nation, and as persons. It will have an influence on economics, on capitalism, the process of globalization, and on our corporate institutions, by awakening heart in all of them, with integrity, as well as a social and ecological responsibility. Our foreign policy would be forged in a more enlightened place, with a more compassionate commitment to nonviolence, justice, genuine peace, and the disciplined pursuit of spirituality, mystical life, and the spiritual journey. Our culture would radiate acceptance of everyone and everything. There would be an emphasis on generosity, of sharing, which generates community everywhere, while our educational system would serve our ultimate development in our individual paths, all leading to a greater appreciation of our engagement with the mystery of otherness here and abroad.